[TL;DR] Be kind. Be supportive. If you don’t know how, either go climbing or go to the next satRday to learn.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to attend and present1 at satRday Joburg 2020 this past weekend. This was my second time attending the conference, but my first time presenting, so I went in with a slight mixture of excitement and apprehension this time around. On the one hand, I was really looking forward to interacting with other R folk and had pretty high expectations i.t.o. everything I’d hopefully be learning over the next two days. On the other hand, I felt pretty insecure about what I had to contribute to proceedings, both as a participant and as a presenter.

satRday kicked off with a series of full-day workshops on the Friday. I was pleased to see some familiar faces from last year and pleasantly surprised that some of those faces apparently recognised mine. I attended Colin Fay’s Building Successful Shiny Apps with {golem} - something I’d been looking forward to ever since the first hints that Colin might be coming to satRday Joburg started dropping on twitter earlier this year. The workshop did not disappoint.2 As someone who has mainly learned R through sources available online, I was reminded just how much of a difference it can make to be able to ask an instructor questions and to have group discussions. The workshop really helped to fill some of the gaps in my understanding of the {golem} workflow and, while I still had questions by the end of the workshop, crucially, I left feeling that I now knew where to go looking for the answers.

The conference on Saturday was also an absolute belter! The topics discussed ran the gamut, from quick “lightning talks” about improving the R user experience, to more technical talks on data exploration, analysis, and production. The presentations were excellent throughout, as were the two thought-provoking keynote addresses by Colin Fay and Heather Turner. The fact that so many of the talks managed to not only be informative, but also genuinely entertaining despite falling well outside of my field of interest or expertise is a testament to the level of presentation skills that were on display.

I hugely enjoyed satRday Joburg 2020 and am grateful to the satRday organising committee and everyone else involved for once again putting on such a good show. But, it is not the workshops or presentations nor, in fact, anything to do with the R language itself that made the biggest impression on me at the conference. To explain what did and why, I’d like to take a bit of a meandering detour…

Why I climb

[TL;DR] The climbing community is incredibly supportive.

My wife and I started rock climbing in 2015. It is sometimes difficult to remember what out lives were like before then, because, despite not being particularly good at climbing and no longer getting to do it nearly as often as we would like to, we have firmly identified as a climbers ever since. There are two reasons for this.

First, the sport itself is fantastic. It offers exactly the kind of stimulation and challenge that makes it feel both incredibly fun and immensely rewarding. I won’t try and convince you of that; it should be self-evident the first time you go and try it for yourself.3

Second, and more importantly, the climbing community is hands down the most welcoming and supportive community I have ever had the privilege to be a part of. I really cannot emphasize this enough. I have participated in a variety of team sports in my life, so it is somewhat ironic that the greatest encouragement, support, and camaraderie I have ever experienced has been while participating in what is generally perceived to be a “solo” sport. Climbing is where I feel like I belong.

My experience at satRday this past weekend made me reflect again on why I love the climbing community so much. Though there are many reasons, the following three stand out to me:

I. Everyone is welcome, regardless of experience or skill level
Other climbers want you to succeed. Pretty much everyone at the crag, regardless of their skill level, is actively rooting for everyone else. It still amazes me that it is the rule, rather than the exception, to find more experienced climbers shouting encouragement to complete strangers who are attempting routes that they themselves could probably have climbed with their eyes closed and their hands tied behind their backs. There seems to be an innate understanding and appreciation of the fact that it doesn’t matter how easy a particular route might be for you. What matters is the subjective experience of whoever is currently attempting the route.

The strongest, most experienced, most talented, and bravest climbers don’t trivialize other climbers’ struggles. They don’t deny others their fear of falling or failing or their frustration with their own perceived physical limitations. They want to see you face your own challenges, overcome them, and share in your happiness when you realise that you can. I love that you don’t have to be as good as other climbers in order to feel like you deserve to be one of them.

II. Success is celebrated; fear is understood; failure is met with compassion
The fact that other climbers want you to succeed is evident in the language they use when you do. There appears to be an ingrained culture of recognizing and acknowledging personal victories. The feeling you get when you have finally managed to top a route you’d been struggling with is a truly potent cocktail of adrenalin, euphoria, joy, and relief. That feeling is elevated further by all of the cheers, well-dones and that-was-awesomes you’re likely to hear from other climbers afterwards.

But, as incredible as it may feel to successfully complete a route, the flipside is that failing to do so can feel like an utterly crushing defeat. Again, this defeat tends to feel deeply personal and is often accompanied by thoughts along the lines of “I am not good/strong/brave enough”. Critically though, failure in climbing is met without judgment, but instead with understanding, compassion, and support. All climbers know that failure is an essential part of progression. Similarly, all climbers understand that fear can sometimes get the better of you. Due to the very nature of the sport, all climbers understand what it’s like to get “shut down”. That is why what you are most likely to hear after not topping a route are things like “that was such a good effort”, “you gave that such a good burn”, “don’t worry, you’ll totally crush that next time”. For me, at least, this type of support has often made the difference between choosing to give up and choosing to have another go.

III. Expertise is shared unselfishly
To the uninitiated, climbing may seem like a sport that hinges almost entirely on physical strength and stamina. But, while these components are certainly important, technique and decision-making are more important still. There are many routes where all the strength in the world would count for very little if you do not know what body movements to make, which foot placements to use, where to rest, and where to push through.

The best way to approach a particular route or problem is often not obvious and the harder the route, the fewer ways there generally are to complete it. It can become frustrating to get shut down on a route, simply because you cannot figure out what you are supposed to do in order to get past a certain point. But, if you ask them, other climbers are happy to share how they have approached or how they would approach a particular route or sequence of moves. In climbing, this is called “sharing beta.

Figuring out good beta on a route generally requires multiple unsuccessful attempts at climbing it. Hopefully, you’ll learn a little more about the route and the best way to approach it with every attempt, but it can be pretty grueling and exhausting work. It requires investing both time and effort.

What I find particularly admirable about climbers is that they are happy to share beta even if it means that, by doing so, the person they are sharing it with may complete the route before they manage to do so themselves. Of course, just because someone has shared good beta about a route doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be able to top the route, but it usually significantly increases the chances that you might. Yet, there is no selfish hoarding of information, tips and tricks for the sake of personal gain. On the contrary, climbers will share their hard-fought beta even if it means that you’ll achieve success before they do.

What I didn’t expect to learn at satRday

So, what on earth does all of that have to do with satRday? Well, the reason satRday made me reflect on my love of climbing is because it reminded me of the climbing community, for reasons similar to those I just mentioned. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it initially, but then I realised what it was: I felt like I belonged. I was with a group of people who not just shared my passion for R, but who also seemed to be glad I was there sharing it with them and genuinely wanted me to succeed. There was such a strong emphasis on inclusiveness and creating a welcoming atmosphere. This is in stark contrast to the vast majority of academic conferences I have attended, where I often felt like I was an unwelcome impostor who didn’t deserve to be there because I wasn’t as good as everyone else.

Now, I want to be clear: I do not presume that my experience at satRday Joburg 2020 is representative of everyone else’s or representative of all other satRdays. There may well be other participants who felt like unwelcome outsiders. I hope there aren’t, but cannot rule out the possibility that there are. To me though, this conference and its community felt different in a way that makes me really look forward to our next engagement. Ultimately, it boiled down to this: everyone was kind and everyone was supportive. That made me want to be there and it makes me want to go there again.

satRday Joburg 2020 surprised me. I fully expected to leave with a renewed desire to continue exploring R and improve my R coding skills. What I didn’t expect was to leave with an even stronger desire to be kinder to, and more supportive of, others. I’m immensely grateful to everyone who selflessly helped make my experience of satRday Joburg 2020 what it was. I’d love for someone else to have a similar experience and I’m really looking forward to trying to help make that a reality at the next one.

  1. You can find a separate blogpost about my presentation here↩︎

  2. The resources for the workshop are publicly available here.↩︎

  3. And you absolutely should go and try it!↩︎